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Putney Swope Sequel

Tom Thumb, Tom Cushman, or Tom Foolery
I date women on TV with the help of Chuck Woolery 

I was genuinely bummed upon hearing about Adam Yauch’s death last Friday afternoon, and as the feeling stuck with me I wondered why. Yauch, equally well known as MCA of the Beastie Boys, died at 47 after a three year struggle with cancer. I’m a big fan, yet this didn’t explain the strange persistence of my melancholy. My Brooklyn buddy Mark knew him, and confirmed what I’d read elsewhere about his uniquely benevolent nature. “He was a gentle, sweet guy,” he told me, “but had enough mojo to keep him interesting.” Seemed like a more succinct version of what so many were saying, but I’d never met the man. As the weekend stretched out, I noted the unusual number of major news outlets and capable writers churning out thoughtful essays on Yauch and the Beasties. These weren’t just pre-scripted obits on file for a celebrity with a potentially fatal condition, but spontaneously thoughtful tributes causing many of the respective authors to reflect on their own lives. The New York Times, NPR, the BBC, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, countless bloggers and Twitter users .. everywhere one looked, laudatory sentiment abounded.

Fight For Your Right is probably, and ironically, the song for which the Beastie Boys are still best known. “A joke that went too far,” Yauch once recalled. “The song began as a goof on all the ‘Smokin in the Boys Room‘ / ‘I Wanna Rock‘ type songs in the world.”  Then Rick Rubin re-mixed the cut while the Beasties hit the road opening for RUN-DMC, and by the time they headed out again on their own tour, the single exploded. “We were drinking Budweiser on stage and playing the role of these snotty kids,” Yauch said. “No one expected us to act that way so it seemed funny. But as the record began to explode things changed. People did begin to expect us to act that way. We found ourselves playing the same arenas we’d opened for Madonna and RUN-DMC, but now they were filled with our new fan base – frat kids. I remember looking out at our concerts and seeing these huge drunken football jocks screaming the lyrics to our songs, and thinking ‘what the hell is going on here?’ But it was too late to turn in any other direction; we were caught up in the frenzy.”

Crossover appeal I think you could call it. This is what was ‘going on’ there back in 1986. The Beastie Boys were clever enough to attract both the rockheaded football jocks focusing only on the catchy chorus, and the kids sharp enough to get the joke. Though Yauch called the song ‘a goof’ it was vintage Beasties, playing on the hilarity of their self-manufactured tongue in cheek image, but still catchy as hell. “Living at home is such a drag,” they rhymed, “your mom took away your best porno mag.” (Followed by a solemn, deadpanned “busted,” completely selling the line.) The album, as you could still legitimately call it back in those days, was Licensed To Ill, and it eventually sold more than nine million copies. Packed with enough knucklehead teen bravado to choke an elephant, its real appeal was in the underlying dichotomy. It obviously took some real smarts to make something this stupid fly. “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece,” Rolling Stone shouted, and it kind of summed it up well. Melody Maker was on the money too, noting “an unshakably glorious celebration of being alive.” If all these guys had ever done was put out the single No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” it would have made a mark. “Like a lemon to a lime, a lime to a lemon / I sip the def ale with all the fine women.” But what they’d do next was truly inspired.

It’s hard to get an exact read on how the talent was distributed among the three Beastie Boys, but Adam Yauch’s touch was all over “Paul’s Boutique.”  The follow up to License to Ill, released in 1989, was about as good as it gets and eventually ended any argument that these guys were just a phase, relying more on attitude than ability. The qualification ‘eventually’ is necessary only because it wasn’t an immediate commercial success, but it would come to be revered as a brilliant hip hop record with no less than Miles Davis noting that he never got tired of listening to it. It was difficult to process the idea that guys this young could make something this good, and from here they would only expand and mature, with Yauch leading the way on the latter charge. It’s a real trick, being able to atone for youthful missteps without becoming, well, lame. But the hooks and rhymes never abandoned the trio, and by ’94 when Yauch famously addressed their early misogyny by rapping “this disrespect to women has got to be through” on Sure Shot, it rang as true as his band mate Adam Horovitz in ’86, bragging in punked-up style about doing the sheriff’s daughter “with a Wiffle ball bat.” By the time they rolled out “Intergalactic” in ’98, Yauch was putting it even more succinctly: “On this tough guy style I’m not too keen.”

Anyway, I meant this more as a curious reflection on why Yauch’s death touched me more than I did an overview of his group’s impressive career and influence. And when I sifted through the volumes of tributes on the Internet, I rapidly came to the conclusion that 1) I wasn’t alone and 2) I probably couldn’t add anything that hadn’t already been said. I suppose this is both disheartening and comforting, and keeps in line with that dichotomous appeal. What was particularly great about the Beasties was seeing them get older along with me, yet managing to retain both their relevance and spirit. I had a close friend once who chastised me when I was in my thirties for “being in to the young thing.” The remark stuck with me for a while and caused some probably unwarranted shame. Then this morning I read a piece on Yauch by a guy named Jack Hamilton writing for the Atlantic online:

“It’s a cliché to remark that a celebrity death makes one feel old, but it’s hard to think of another artist who spent so long making us feel so young. … The outpouring of consensus grief was deeply sad, insanely moving, and totally deserved. On Friday we all lost someone in common, something we should continue to reflect on by spending a little more time intentionally being young. No sleep til.”

Not my words, but I wish they were.

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One Comment

  1. sara wrote:

    beastie boys said this….

    Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

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